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Unstoppable Yankee Avarice

While in the western theater early in the war, Grant observed the brisk illicit traffic passing around his lines as Yankee traders and speculators bribed Northern officers to allow their passage to purchase cotton. Later in the war, General W.H.C. Whiting in command of the Cape Fear District at Wilmington wrote President Davis that blockade runners with Northern goods aboard seemed to pass through the blockade more easily.

Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com


Unstoppable Yankee Avarice

“The amount of greed and corruption that attended the business of blockade-running was about what might have been anticipated, and involved not only Southerners and Britons, but some grasping Yankees.

When Gazaway B. Lamar (though born in Georgia, Lamar removed to Brooklyn in 1845 and became successful in business, and for several years president of the Bank of the Republic, New York), a pre-war smuggler of Africans into the South, headed a company that vigorously operated four steamers, and along with Fraser and Company of Charleston, and Fraser, Trenholm of Liverpool reported lucrative returns, it is no wonder that some Northerners watched these traders enviously! The contraband commerce had all the attractions of gambling for high stakes.

More than half the ships and cargoes tried in the New York prize court were British, but the British name too often concealed Northern interests. Some Yankees were as ready to evade trading-with-the-enemy laws as their fathers had been in 1812. Northern goods, their labels altered to flaunt famous English names, passed through Boston or New York on long roundabout trips, Boston-Bermuda-Wilmington, or New York-Nassau-Mobile, and sometimes were even shipped with bold directness to Charleston or Matamoros.

At its height, the New York trade with Bermuda, Nassau and Havana was scandalously large. A “ring” of dealers, shippers, and blockade-runners helped organize the traffic and made arrangements with the Custom House for shipments. In the autumn of 1864, information was given Naval Officer William E. Dennison that blockade-runners had been heard to boast of ease with which they could clear outward-bound goods through the [New York] Custom House. Several men swore that one employee, the son of H.B. Stanton the noted Abolitionist orator, had taken bribes, and he and his father were dismissed.

[As for Yankee cotton-buying in the West, Grant] . . . “in private conversations to the end of the war, he always spoke of them as a gang of thieves.” As Lincoln crisply put it, “The army itself is diverted from fighting the rebels to speculating in cotton.” Rear Admiral Porter said of the Treasury agents sent down by [Treasury Secretary Salmon P.] Chase to control the situation: “A greater pack of knaves never went unhung.”

Yet his own gunboat crews were equally unscrupulous, one Senator later declaring that they had made a hundred millions during the war. Charles A. Dana wrote: “Every soldier dreams of adding a bale of cotton to his monthly pay.” And David Perry of the Fifth Illinois Cavalry, son of a mayor of Bloomington, Illinois, made a yet graver charge.

“Many lives have been sacrificed during the past summer and fall, he informed his father as the year 1862 ended, “that certain high officers might make their fortunes with cotton-trade, and many a poor darkey who had fled to us has been traded off, by officers holding high positions in the army and before the world, for cotton. The truth is, when an impartial history of this war shall be written, it will expose a greater amount of fraud and corruption than the world has ever before seen. Even your Bloomington general, Hovey, traded Negroes for cotton and sacrificed many lives . . . for the sole purpose of making money.”

By Autumn [1862], a correspondent of the New York Tribune was asserting flatly, “One of the causes of the want of discipline, energy and military power in the army of the Southwest is the mania for cotton speculation which has seized upon the officers of the Army, from generals down to quartermasters and lieutenants.”

Loyal Union planters saw their cotton pounced upon by greedy [Northern] officers who waved papers, talked of the violation of obscure military orders, and shipped the crop away with almost no concealment of the fact of private interest.

The ebullient “Russ” Jones of Chicago, close friend of both Grant and Elihu Washburne, made no secret of his activities. He wrote Congressman Washburne at the beginning of 1863 from Holly Springs, Mississippi, that Grant had treated him kindly.

He hoped the army would push farther South, “as I want to get as far into the enemy’s country as possible. If we get out safely with what cotton we have bought, I shall clear four or five thousand for my share . . .” Jones, former Galena businessman and Republican politician, continued to serve in his patronage post of Marshal. In 1869 he was named Minister to Belgium by Grant, and was very active in Republican politics and Chicago street railroads. At one time he managed some property and investments for Grant.”

(The War for the Union, Allan Nevins, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1971, excerpts, pp. 342-353)


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